Solitary confinement: The apartheid torture that still haunts SA's psyche
A group of experts is set to explore the true damage of the punishment that still lingers in the form of 'segregation'
The horror of solitary confinement has always sat firmly in the realm of human rights and social justice. But increasingly, scientists are weighing in on the issue, looking at its biological impact on the human brain.
Now, at the international Neuroscience 2018 conference that kicked off at the weekend in San Diego, US, experts from all over the world and from a wide range of disciplines are coming together to look at how this form of isolation actually affects the neural pathways of the brain.
A roundtable of scientists, a physician, a lawyer and an individual held in solitary confinement for several years will explore the psychological and neurobiological burdens of solitary confinement at the meeting, which is the world’s gathering of experts looking at brain science and health.
Solitary confinement has also been deemed a “cruel and unusual punishment” by the United Nations Committee on Torture, and earlier this year in SA, in commemoration of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, the department of correctional services (DCS), in partnership with the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, launched the Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. This included a ban on solitary confinement.
They do, however, make provision for what’s known as “segregation”, which may include a prisoner being separated from other prisoners but with very strict guidelines for what that entails.
According to a statement by the Society for Neuroscience, “social isolation has been shown to heighten stress hormone responses and change structures within the brain. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with depression, hostility, heightened stress response, sleep fragmentation and increased mortality”.
Moderator Michael Zigmond, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said: “The social and ethical questions raised by this roundtable discussion warrant broad public attention,” as it is relevant to many people, not just those in solitary confinement but those who experience isolation through ageing.
Amended rules on prison governance were adopted by the UN General Assembly as far back as 1955, and were then revised in 2015 and dubbed The Nelson Mandela Rules. But more than many other countries, it is a topic that haunts the psyche of the South African nation in particular.
During apartheid, solitary confinement was used with no discretion or limitations to punish those deemed “criminals” for resisting the oppressive regime of the day. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, for example, long since hailed as the epitome of strength in the face of adversity, expressed in the years before her death how she had planned to take her own life after the impact of solitary confinement on her mental health.
Held for 491 days alone in a cell, her case became the beacon of barbaric acts of injustice carried out at Petron Central Prison during the struggle.
For some, however, the brutality of solitary confinement is not just a ghost from South Africa’s past. In August this year, the Wits Justice Project’s Sumeya Gasa said: “[At present], any inmate who is removed from the general prison population may only be placed in segregation under specific conditions.”
A prisoner who is placed in segregation for disciplinary purposes has to undergo “specific programmes” during the segregation period.
However, the Amendment Act does not specify what “specific programmes” form part of segregation for disciplinary purposes.
This period also may not exceed 30 days, and an inmate in segregation also has to be visited by a medical officer at least once a day.
“On paper, segregation is an improvement on solitary confinement while often mimicking it in practice,” Gasa said.